While the award season reaches its turbulent home stretch, on the other side of the world the Berlin International Film Festival (“Berlinale”) quietly kicked off its 69th edition. As someone who has lived in the German capital for over a decade and has been visiting its annual celebration of everything Kino for just as long, it’s impossible not to notice how the festival has changed through the years.
Traditionally considered one of the European A-list film-fest trifecta next to Cannes and Venice, Berlin’s standing has inarguably been in decline. Whether in terms of prestige or media exposure, one senses the Golden Bear struggles to compete with either the Palme or the Lion. The most significant reason for that is probably the simple, unfortunate fact of scheduling. Whether one likes it or not, the Oscars has grown to dominate global attention as the ultimate cinematic event at this time of year, which has had direct impact on the ecosystem of film festivals everywhere.
Taking full advantage of its perfect timing in the awards calendar, Venice has re-invented itself as the glamorous launching pad for Hollywood productions with Oscar aspirations. The status upgrade was felt most notably on the Croisette, as even Cannes couldn’t seem to lure away some buzzed titles with its May date. That leaves poor Berlin, one full year before the Oscars, scrambling rather hopelessly to attract stars and auteurs.
Which is not to say the Berlinale isn’t a spectacularly fun experience unto itself. Indeed, with 1,000 screenings showcasing 400 films over 10 days in a city 48 times the size of Cannes, it’s a massive cinematic orgy all right. And how can you not love it when every February, in the dead of winter, Singaporean and Macedonian films alike sell out huge auditoriums from West to East Berlin; when every trendy café or hot new bar you go to, movies are constantly on people’s lips?
In that spirit, yours truly, AD’s proud European correspondent, shall dive into the Berlinale again and report back with highlights and surprising finds. This year the coverage begins with prolific French filmmaker François Ozon’s competition entry BY THE GRACE OF GOD.
With nearly 20 features under his belt, Ozon is not only a queer filmmaker icon, but one of the most versatile of his generation, having given us the actress-licious musical 8 WOMEN, the sensual, dramatic thriller SWIMMING POOL, the Verhoeven-esque kinky horror flick DOUBLE LOVER. His latest marks another clear departure from the oeuvre he’s known for as he ventures into (political) drama territory.
Chronicling the efforts of a group of molestation victims in France to bring a revered Catholic priest to justice and shed light on a church that enabled heinous, life-destroying crimes to go on for decades, BY THE GRACE OF GOD is a fastidiously written, vigorously directed piece of news-based drama. Without wasting a single second, it kick-starts with a brisk montage introducing 40-year-old Alexandre (Melvil Poupaud), family man and father of five, as he recounts the sexual abuse he suffered as a child at the hands of Father Preynat. Alexandre would go on to confront church officials, the cardinal, even Preynat himself who shockingly doesn’t deny the allegations. Just when you think things are moving along too smoothly, however, it turns out truth hardly leads to justice in this complicated world of ours and that, when it comes to questions of sex and faith, nothing is ever easy for us mortals.
I don’t think Ozon has ever made a “straighter” film than this in the sense that, whether in its approach, tone or visual design, BY THE GRACE OF GOD is conspicuously sober and matter-of-fact, the director’s signature touches of flourish nowhere in sight. Amplified in effect by the long narrations and minutely detailed testimonials, it often strikes one as journalistic, borderline documentary in feel. This is obviously appropriate for the subject matter, but even more interestingly, it’s still an unmistakable film d’Ozon.
This probably has to do with his unerring ear for dialogue that captures the authenticity of human interaction, be it playfully, sinisterly seductive or, in this case, raw and intensely sensitive. Meanwhile, his rarefied sense of style manifests itself through the sharp, musically precise editing that helps keep the narrative sleekly uncluttered despite the bulk of information delivered.
At 137 minutes, the film may have outstayed its welcome a little bit. But I would argue that it’s this unstoppable outpour of confessions and revelations that serves to put the viewer inside a state of repressed trauma, guilt, shame, and makes them feel the burden of a lifetime of secrets. Ozon, ever the skilled screenwriter, beautifully moves the narrative focus between three protagonists with distinctly different perspectives on how to face their demons and weaves together a complex picture of salvation. The fine performances by a huge ensemble cast doesn’t hurt either. Standout for me is Swann Arlaud who plays the third main character, a child genius who struggles the hardest to reconcile the possibility of redemption with a life ruined by abuse and victimhood.
BY THE GRACE OF GOD is not a political film per se, but it brings a politically charged subject matter back to the human level, which is what the best political movies do, as further exemplified by Belgian director Bas Devos’ sophomore feature HELLHOLE, which premiered in the Panorama sidebar of the Berlinale.
Set in Brussels, the heart of the European Union and symbol of post-nationalistic open-mindedness that’s been flippantly dubbed a “hellhole” by Donald Trump, the 87-min essayistic film is so delicate that politics seems too dirty a word to associate it with. Unfolding through three intercutting narrative strands, it follows an Arab teenager figuring out the rights and wrongs in a cruel, inexplicably hostile world, a Flemish medical doctor contending with losing a loved one and potentially starting anew, and a young Italian interpreter trying to make sense of her urban existence spent in loveless disconnect.
The suicide bombings across the Belgian capital in March 2016 are only referred to peripherally in the film but, depending on how you read this quiet, impressionistic take on life in Brussels today, they could be all the film is about. The characters, as diverse as they are, share an air of reluctant reticence, an unspoken cautiousness reminiscent of a shell-shocked Europe. The places – street corners, subway platforms, nighttime cityscape – exquisitely framed and lovingly shot by DP Nicolas Karakatsanis, all seem to be unwilling witness to an act of stupefying violence.
Everywhere you look, people are trapped inside their own guard and, without ever verbalizing it, the film describes the post-terror European malaise with an eloquence that utterly overwhelms. In the end, politics are nothing but the way we choose to treat one another, and HELLHOLE – rather brilliantly titled for it is a most serene and visually appealing thing – reminds you of that by giving our political zeitgeist a sad, familiar face.